Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE ANCIENTS, by WILLIAM ROSE BENET

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE ANCIENTS, by                 Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography
First Line: The ancients wiled him while he slept
Last Line: Lest honor die from elder days.
Subject(s): Past

The ancients wiled him while he slept.
On all his ways a watch they kept.
At his bed's foot they stood in sight,
And bade him rise when day grew light
To other dreams than he should quest.
They would not ever let him rest.

Why, he had gazed upon the face
Of victory at Samothrace
And all the glory that was hers.
With bronzed Phoenician mariners
At Gades by the western gate
He had seen Melkarth's nuptial state
In sunset splendors manifest
O'er the far Islands of the Blest.

With Cyrus 'neath the colored walls
Of Ecbatana -- in the halls
Of Nero's golden house, where flowers
Rained on the guests at banquet hours --
He had inhaled the strange perfume
Of ancient gorgeousness and gloom.
And he had seen the cedar beams
Of Solomon's palace in his dreams,
And stood with Croesus to behold
The Lydian river foaming gold.
With Hassan, as Arabians say,
He had been caliph for a day.

The Theban three had dazed his sight;
The high priest chanting to the light,
With antique litanies between;
The white bull through the incense seen;
And queens had passed with peacock fans,
Their naos borne by Africans:
Delicious beauty decked at ease
With corals from Erythrean seas
And whelky pearls plucked from the deep.

Battles had burst across his sleep.
He stood with Cocles at the bridge;
With Hannibal he clomb the ridge;
Felt a Scaevola's haughty ire
To thrust his arm into the fire
And laugh for scorn. Or he would call
Torqued Manlius who slew the Gaul
Unto his aid in times of stress.

More than Thalassius' happiness
He had wrested from the Sabine past.
He had stood with those about the mast
Whom Theseus succoured with his fleet
Daring the brazen man of Crete.
He had seen the Thirty's treacheries
Slay houseless Alcibiades,
And with the few who held the pass
Had likewise cheered Leonidas.

So vivid to him were their stories
That he would stammer o'er their glories,
In his small, dingy room, at me --
Some soiled page smoothed upon his knee.
He drudged all day, but, once upstairs
At night, the ancients claimed him theirs.
He grudged his hurried supper time
Till he was home, with prose or rhyme
To swing the gate or burst the gyve;
And then the man became alive.

And so he failed as man with men,
And so his stature grew again
By night, o'er history or fable,
With the lamp smoking on the table --
Boy to the last and steeped in glory.

His living was a different story?
Yet who can doubt his life's amends.
I have known far less worthy ends
Than his; to pulsate with a passion
And heroism out of fashion,
To steep himself in ancient color
Till good gray life grew all the duller;
I have known far paltrier ends, I say,
To gain the acclaim of this our day.

His hero worship filled the lack
Of all a man wants at his back;
Friends, wealth, position, fame, a wife.
He never wished these things of life, --
Nor just desired his hunger fed
As reliquary of the dead, --
But fanned a rare, bright flame of praise
Lest honor die from elder days.

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